By: B Shantanu
February 24, 2007
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Swastika, Nazis and sacred symbols
Origin of Hindu Swastika
controversy around Germany’s proposal to seek an EU ban on swastikas (and
later its abandonment: see
here) prompted me to dig up and refresh this article which I wrote for
my newsletter almost two years ago. (Mar ‘05)
Swastika and its Religious Significance:
As some of
you may be aware, there has been a
great deal of controversy in the UK regarding the wearing of an
armband by Prince Harry that had a “swastika” badge on it.
This created a predictable uproar in the local media with many people
being reminded of the grim horrors of the Holocaust (the Prince was
wearing a replica Nazi uniform).
Along with the reaction, there were calls for the symbol to be banned (on
the grounds of being racially offensive).
Thankfully, the Hindu Forum of Great Britain got into the act (see, “HFB
launches national campaign to reclaim swastika”) and decided to start
a campaign to create awareness amongst the general public about how an
ancient Hindu symbol had been misappropriated by the Nazis.
As I watched this controversy unfold, I realised that I was myself not
fully aware of the significance of “swastika” and how it had come to be
associated with the Nazis.
Below is a
summary from my research on the subject.
“swastika” originates in Sanskrit. It is composed of “su”, meaning
good/well and “asti” meaning “to be”; svasti thus means “well-being”;
“-ka” forms a diminutive, and svastika/swastika might thus be translated
literally as “little thing associated with well-being”. In ancient
Indo-European cultures, it was put on objects to symbolise good luck. In
geometric terms, the swastika is an irregular icosagon or a 20-sided
right-handed clockwise swastika is considered an auspicious symbol of the
sun or of Lord Vishnu, the sustaining aspect of God (in the Trinity of
Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar). It also represents the world-wheel around a
fixed and unchanging centre, God. I am not sure about the first appearance
of the word or the symbol in ancient Indian texts but it has been in use
As a symbol, it has been used for several millennia – not
just in India but also in other ancient civilisations (e.g. it has been
found in the ruins of the city of Troy). Other than Hinduism, it has also
been used in Buddhism, Jainism, and other cultures including in the Native
American cultures (one of my friends even found the symbol on an art piece
in a museum in Turkey).
times, the swastika was used freely by Sumerians, Hittites, Celts and
Greeks, among others. Even the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon ship burial at
Sutton Hoo, England, contains gold cups and shields bearing swastikas. The
swastika has also appeared in South and Central America, and has been
widely used in Mayan art during that time period.
Hinduism and Jainism, the swastika is used to mark the opening pages or
their account books, thresholds, doors, and offerings.
major difference between the Nazi swastika and the ancient symbol of many
different cultures, is that the Nazi swastika is at a slant, while the
ancient swastika is rested flat.
Here is a
fascinating titbit from a
BBC article on the subject:
British author Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian
culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the
rise of Nazism made this inappropriate. It was also a symbol used by the
scouts in Britain, although it was taken off Robert Baden-Powell’s 1922
Medal of Merit after complaints in the 1930s.
Finnish Air Force also used it as its official symbol in World War II, and
it still appears on medals, but it had no connection with the Nazi use.It
is rarely seen on its own in Western architecture, but a design of
interlocking swastikas is part of the design of the floor of the cathedral
of Amiens, France.”
Association with Nazism and anti-Semitism
universally positive meanings of the swastika were subverted in the early
twentieth century when it was adopted as the emblem of the National
Socialist German Workers Party. Since World War II, most Westerners see it
as solely a fascist symbol, leading to incorrect assumptions about its
pre-Nazi use and its current use in other cultures.
abbreviated chronology of how the symbol became associated with Hitler in
the early part of 20th century.
first use as an anti-Semitic symbol was in 1870 when it was used by the
Austrian, pan-German followers of Schoenerer, an Austrian anti-Semitic
In 1910, a
poet and nationalist Guido von List suggested that the swastika as a
symbol for all anti-Semitic organizations. When the National Socialist
Party was formed in 1919, it adopted this ancient symbol, thus setting the
stage for destroying the positive symbolism with which the swastika had
been associated for thousands of years.
party formally adopted the “swastika” (called Hakenkreuz meaning the
hooked cross) in 1920. This was used on the party’s flag, badge and
armband. In 1935, the black swastika on a white circle with a crimson
background became the national symbol of Germany.
While it is
important to make every effort to reclaim the swastika, we should, at the
same time, make strenuous efforts to ensure that it is clearly
differentiated from the design and symbolism used by the Nazis and
everything associated with it.Next, some excerpts (paraphrased slightly
for readability) from an interesting thesis regarding how (and why) the
symbol was hijacked by the Nazis.
This is one
of the more credible explanations that I have come across so far (see
full article here). I have paraphrased it slightly for purposes of
explanation of how this ancient symbol became associated with Nazi
ideology: “…In the later part of 18th century, as British interest in
India grew, there began efforts to do more research on the art, culture
and languages of ancient India. One of the earliest researchers was Sir
William Jones (1746-94) who established the Royal Asiatic Society. A
gifted linguist who studied Sanskrit, Jones is widely regarded as the
father of “Indology”.
this ancient and sacred Hindu language made many scholars realise not only
its great antiquity, but also its affinity to most of the languages spoken
in the West - an interest that was taken up most stridently by the
A weak and
divided people at the time and suffering the threat of domination by both
France & Austria, the Germans were split into various states and dukedoms,
the largest of which was Prussia. This period of alienation, accentuated
by events such as the fall of the Holy Roman Empire due to Napoleon’s
conquest, led many German thinkers of the early nineteenth century to look
for inspiration to India.
included Frederick von Schlegel, his brother Augustus Wilhelm, Wilhelm von
Humbolt, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Hegel. There was also the rise of
romanticism in Germany, a reaction to the industrialisation of European
society that was fast gathering pace. While “romanticism”, i.e. an
idealisation of the past before industrialisation, manifested itself in
the poetry of Wordsworth in Britain, in continental Europe, it meant
As well as
idealising the pre-industrial “purity” of humans living in harmony with
nature, the German romanticists also talked of the pagan heroes before the
time of Christianity, in their view, brave warriors who held off the
Romans in the almost impenetrable forests of central Europe.
had a more sinister side. Some romanticists wanted to free themselves of
the “alien” Jewish contamination brought into German society by
Christianity, as well as by the Jews themselves.
emerged as a military power and German unification was achieved in 1871,
the British looked on with alarm. Indeed Sir Henry Maine, former
Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University said: “..a nation has been borne
out of Sanskrit.”
meantime, in their efforts to create a intermediating class (“white
Brahmins”) between themselves and the “dark subjects”, the British began a
programme of “re-discovering” (and researching) ancient Indian culture in
earnest. The intention may have been to undermine the belief system of at
least the “progressive” Indians with the hope that they would become dis-enchanted
with the literary and cultural heritage of India, once the “truth” (via
such research) became evident.
effort, the person they turned to for help was a devout Protestant and
gifted Vedic scholar, German Sanskritologist, Friedrich Max Muller. For a
princely sum (in those days) of Ł10,000 Max Muller was persuaded to work
for the British East India Company by Macaulay, to translate the Rig Veda.
His intentions were, however, less than noble.
In 1866, in a
letter to his wife about his work, he wrote, “…this edition of mine and
the translation of the Veda, will hereafter tell to a great extent on the
fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It
is the root of their religion and to show them what the root it, I feel
sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the
last three thousand years.”
cannot cast doubt on his intelligence and talent, Muller’s scholarship is
nevertheless marred by this ulterior motive.
What he wrote
in the letter above was only the beginning.
It was Max
Muller himself who gave “Aryan” a racial meaning, knowing full well as a
scholar well versed in that ancient language, that Sanskrit “Arya” does
not mean race.
point onwards, the idea of Aryan race could not be contained; In parallel,
the idea of an “Aryan” invasion by Indo-European (and obviously
fair-skinned) tribes from Central Asia, who authored the Vedas and
established the basis of Hinduism, came to be widely accepted, even though
it had absolutely no basis in any indigenous tradition of India – In
reality, this was an “invention” of Muller who employed it as an
ideological mechanism for colonial domination by the British.
The idea was
adopted and further enhanced by romanticist intellectuals who wanted to
free themselves of all Judaic influence brought upon them by Christianity,
and saw this Aryan racial theory as another string to their bow. (Read
this essay to see how the idea has been discredited)
artificial dating of the Vedas to 1400BCE (so as to be more recent than
the books of the Bible), it had absolutely nothing to do with India
itself, and the people of India neither had any role nor any influence in
symbol of ancient cultures par excellence, was an ideal mechanism with
which to manufacture a mythical past, which never existed. And it served
as a counter-point of stability in a turbulent environment that was
dominated by power politics, the formation of nation states, anti-Semitism
and influenced by ideas of Social Darwinism and eugenics.
symbols, Norse gods such as Odin, and even the ancient Greek myth of
Atlantis, all were exploited along with the swastika and idea of the Aryan
race to bolster Nazi theory and ideology….”
misunderstanding caused by this and widespread ignorance about the
original meaning and significance of the symbol still persists – even
amongst otherwise widely read and well educated people, including Indians.
forward amongst friends and colleagues so that we can counter mis-information
and ill-informed debate with facts and truth.
Send your views to author
some more information on how the symbol was hijacked by the Nazis and
completely deprived of it original meaning (from an article by Chirag
Badlani, “Nazi Swastika or Ancient Symbol? Time to Learn the Difference”,
Here is a
somewhat dated (’99) article about how
a misunderstanding about the symbol caused an Indian employee to loose his
job in the US
an excellent and scholarly introduction to various Hindu
a fascinating hypothesis regarding the origins of “Aum” and “Swastika”
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